‘You have to find room for yourself’
Fatherhood, farming and more center police out of uniform
ALPENA — Mark Bluck buys a lot of bandages.
When in uniform, the patrolman with the Alpena Police Department investigates, settles civil disputes, and removes drunk drivers from the streets.
Off duty, though, the officer settles in at his Alpena home and whacks rocks.
An avid fossil collector for years, Bluck recently took up the hobby of knapping. Teaching himself from online videos, he learned to create arrowheads fashioned after those used by ice age hunters and American Indian tribes.
The arrowheads are made, he demonstrated, by locating dips and ridges in the edge of a rock, clues that tell a trained eye where and how the rock will break. Perched on a bucket, a protective piece of leather over his leg, Bluck held the unsculpted rock in one hand, then expertly gave it a smack with a copper-capped weighted stick — just so — chipping off piece after piece to form a tapered ridge.
As his scrape-flecked fingers attest, the hobby can be rough on the hands. A box of bandages is a must, Bluck said.
Bluck eagerly displayed a tableful of his creations, holding up favorites. Arrowheads can be made from several varieties of rock, and even from glass, he explained.
“Jaegermeister,” Bluck said with a grin, picking up a green, translucent arrowhead.
Knapping is not the officer’s only off-duty hobby. He’s also known to kids around town as Sensei Bluck after 17 years as a karate instructor. It’s a way he can extend his job by staying in touch with the community, he said.
Arrowhead-making, though, the quiet hobby that lets you sit on a bucket in your yard, holding a piece of nature and hearing only the click of copper against stone … that’s different.
“It’s just for me,” Bluck said.
“You have to have hobbies,” corrections officer Garrett Pelleran explained. The officer supervises inmates at the Alpena County Jail, working an unpredictable schedule with a lot of overtime. Serving as caretaker for people completely dependant on you is high-stress work, Pelleran said.
It’s physically and emotionally demanding.
“You have to find room for yourself,” the officer said.
Pelleran finds release in staying active — mountain bikes, boats, snowmobiles, an almost-daily morning workout at a local gym. The officer embraces his hometown, loving Alpena and all it has to offer. He lives downtown, a regular at the local coffee shop and an eager participant in local events, as much as his schedule allows.
A police officer’s hours can get in the way of a social life. Your friends are out doing things while you’re working 12-hour shifts, Pelleran said. But you need people when you live the uniformed life, he said. You need friends, family, loved ones.
“Those are your support at the end of the day,” the officer said. “Without that mental, emotional support, this job is hard to do. It’s extremely hard.”
Sometimes, Pelleran said, when he’s out of uniform, he runs into people that at one time were on the other side of the bars he patrols at the jail. Sometimes, those encounters can be uncomfortable. But, usually, they’re a good thing, Pelleran said, a chance to see each other not as officer and inmate but as two people going about their lives.
“They see, hey, everybody is human. We’re all people,” Pelleran said. “Life goes on.”
Growing up, Sgt. Donald Leaym didn’t dream of being a police officer.
He wanted to be a farmer.
The efficient, respected officer with the Alpena Police Department — recently promoted to supervisor — goes home after each shift to chickens underfoot, crops to tend, and cows who adore him, hoofing across the pasture for a head scratch or a treat at his small, peaceful farm.
It’s not a money-maker, the farm. Fluctuations in crop prices and the cost of equipment and feed mean, Leaym said ruefully, that, “when it comes to tax time, I usually go backward.”
Farming is a labor of love for the officer who is teased by his coworkers for being a devoted listener of Country Gold Saturday Night.
Leaym slips into easy familiarity as he describes the parenting habits of red-faced cows Shirley and Mary Ellen, and his voice warms with affection as he talks of his pride and joy: a sturdy, cantankerous Limousin bull named after a Hank Williams Sr. song.
He describes three recent days of almost no sleep, between hay harvest and a night shift.
The farm, even with the hard work it requires, is a respite, a place of healing and renewal for Leaym.
“We deal with everybody’s personal issues,” the officer said of his police job that daily plunges him into hurting people’s homes and lives.
Off-duty time, though, means a few hours of being immersed in a different world, checking things over, scratching a friendly forehead, watching a calf take its first steps.
“I get peace out of it, I guess,” Leaym said. “Then I can go to bed, get up and start all over again.”
On paper, Erik Smith’s life is one of action and adventure.
During his 18 years as a sheriff’s deputy in Alcona and now Alpena counties, the officer has served on emergency response, undercover narcotics, and dive teams, and as a school liaison officer, in addition to keeping the peace and maintaining public safety daily.
In contrast to the uniformed life, Smith’s off-duty hours seem commonplace. When he’s not at work, Smith said, he’s busy being a dad.
His daughter, Gabbie, 16, and sons, Fitch and Patrick, 8 and 13, are busily involved in sports — football, softball, baseball, hockey. Travel teams require transportation to Atlanta, Kalkaska, Toronto, Buffalo. Smith’s phone calendar is full of the busy comings and goings of a family man.
“That’s what I do: drive around and take kids to sporting events,” Smith said.
In spring, Smith bought a motorcycle, the better to zip from one ball diamond to another. His kids are kind of beat up from their sports, he said, fatherly pride glowing behind his words as he described splints and stitches earned by his hard-playing athletes.
When the badge comes off and the uniform is hung in the closet, Smith is, like so many other workers at the end of the day, just a regular parent.
A lot of people forget that there is a human being beneath every police uniform, Smith said.
“When people see us on the street, they always think that we’re all uptight,” he said. “But we’re just like everybody else. We like to joke around and have fun. We’re just normal people.”
Julie Riddle can be reached at 989-358-5693, email@example.com or on Twitter @jriddleX.